Kelly Hunter in Ghosts [pic: Simon Annand]


22nd November 2013

Rose Productions / English Touring Theatre

at Watford Palace Theatre

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The Watford Palace Theatre stage beautifully accommodates this touring production. The set, inspired by large scale paintings by Edvard Munch designed for an Oslo production in 1906 and not used since it was dropped from the repertoire in 1915, is moody and spare, with elegant lines and a backdrop on which is projected a sequence of moving clouds. It's simple, astonishingly atmospheric and quite bewitching.

'Ghosts' is, of course, profoundly moving. Ibsen himself described it as 'a family story as sad and grey as this rainy day', and the slow unveiling of truths half-hinted at from the earliest family interactions is terrible to share. It was, in its time, scandalous with its allusions to incest and syphilis, its attacks on religion and its defence of free love. Some modern audiences and critics have found it hard to appreciate the enormity of the play's content, dismissing it as out-of-date and irrelevant but a little suspension of disbelief will disabuse even the most hard-hearted and cynical. It almost doesn't matter what the ghosts of the past are; it matters only that they reach into the present and poison the lives whose petty, painful interactions we are watching. This production works well with the natural rhythm of the writing (a new translation by director Stephen Unwind); you can feel the tensions in the silences.

The play, for all the sorrows and tension to come, bursts into life with a confrontation between the young maid Regina (pertly played by Florence Hall, with great control) and her father Jakob Engstrand. Pip Donaghy inhabits Engstrand to perfection; he's the sort of actor that makes you think he's just thought of the words and he delivers them with a natural pace in a Scottish accent, designed to indicate his peasant status. That conceit did become mildly irritating, however, and I have to confess to stifling a giggle in the second half when the spirit of Billy Connolly seemed to take him over. It was the one weak spot in a performance that otherwise I liked well.

The crisis about which the play revolves is taking place in the life of Helene Alving, widow of a Court Chamberlain of dubious morality and mother of Osvald, a young painter newly returned home from Paris, where his life is not going well. Osvald is ill, angry, and ready to challenge all the values with which he was raised. The cast is completed by Pastor Manders, shallow and narrow-minded, governed by duty.

Mrs Alving is not a character for whom compassion comes easily for the modern audience, but Hunter delivers her with a clever balance of measure and neuroticism. There are melodramatic moments… but Mrs Alving is internalising the entire melodrama of her marriage in just a few hours: a touch of hysteria is inevitable. Osvald is well cast; Mark Quartly plays his detachment and fear well, and is particularly good at the physicality of distress. Patrick Drury, as Pastor Manders, was a little too remote, too careful.

This is a play which demands intimacy, and a theatre as large as the Palace (600 seats) cannot deliver that – but the production is nevertheless compelling, and manages in its slow burn, to make you utterly forget that you're in a damn-near full auditorium on a Thursday afternoon in Watford. That's an achievement indeed.

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